Why Amazon Has Bought Whole Foods

(In short: It’s their grocery playground.)

The decision, last week, from Amazon to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, has been met with considerable criticism. Big acquisitions are not a part of Amazon’s usual playbook. Amazon has generally patiently built its services across many years, and relied on mergers only for specific technologies or, in rare cases, to buy competitors such as Pets.com.

It looks like a horrendous decision

This is all the more puzzling when one looks at Whole Foods in more detail. One, for all its growth, it has had tremendous difficulties in recent years, struggling to be profitable, and is now under attack of activist investors over its falling stock. Amazon will therefore have to somehow change Whole Foods to turn it into a success. Plus, Whole Foods is known for having a unique corporate culture in which welfare and the independence of store employees is emphasized. For instance, employees are allowed to vote on benefits every three years. A caricatural way of summing up Whole Foods’ culture is that there is no employee union because the work conditions are so good. This stands in contrast with Amazon’s corporate culture, which is reportedly brutal for low-level employees, and insanely competitive for high-level ones.

So, Amazon has bought, at a massive price, a flailing company in a low-margin, competitive market; seems to prepare itself to massive culture clash and the PR nightmare that could result from it; and, on top of that, some are already talking about the need of antitrust regulation to block this merger that would consolidate Amazon a retail behemoth. What on Earth is Jeff Bezos thinking?

Now, I am here to argue that the merger is strategically justified (and, as The New York Times mentioned, one of Amazon’s strengths is its willingness to fail.) But there is a pretty strong case for Amazon to buy a company like Whole Foods, and I am going to lay it out here.

The problem with the grocery industry

The sector of groceries has long been an area of future growth for Amazon. It is indeed one of the biggest sectors of the retail industry; and, notoriously, it has been pretty impervious to e-commerce. So, for the past years, Amazon has tried to spin their take on grocery shopping with a flurry of products. Most notable among them was Amazon Fresh, which allows customers, for a monthly fee, to have produce to be delivered or picked up. Or one could mention Amazon Prime Now, which allows Amazon Prime members to be delivered produced products in two hours, albeit for a hefty price.

The problem with that strategy is that, essentially, it has not worked out. Grocery services is a tough nut to crack, Amazon seems to have discovered. Groceries are indeed ordered pretty differently than books or households objects. Immediacy is very important: hence the value of a combination of physical presence and very fast delivery. Also, perishable products cannot be stored and presented in a way that is even remotely similar to the rest of their catalog. Therefore, Amazon has tried to innovate in both domains. It has opened physical stores and food trucks in Seattle. These experiments, although headline-grabbing, didn’t seem to be very scalable. If Amazon wanted to have a physical presence as ubiquitous as their website, it would have to acquire a lot of real estate and build stores there. These operations are notoriously lengthy, difficult and expensive to realize; at least, much harder than scaling their online presence.

You could buy Whole Foods for its real estate, but that’s not enough

Whole Foods partially solves that problem. Their physical presence across the US is relatively expansive; there are Whole Foods in virtually every major US city. The mere real estate of Whole Foods can be valued in billions of dollars. So, if Amazon wanted to convert all of the Whole Foods in Amazon Groceries, they would have a good jumpstart. This, in itself, not a sufficient reason to buy Whole Foods. After all, if Amazon really wants to be as gigantic as their $500 billion valuation suggests, it can’t content itself with a grocery brand that occupies only a percent of the market, focuses on organic products, and is itself under financial duress.

So it can’t be just about acquiring a grocer; Amazon will have to change Whole Foods somehow. One could imagine, instinctively, that Amazon would radically transform the Whole Foods stores, rebrand them under the Amazon brand, and change the catalog to make it appealing to every American. And, because this Amazon, make Whole substantially bigger. But that probably would engender a heavy culture clash. This probably explains that, after the acquisition, Amazon declared that Whole Foods store would continue to operate as before, and that no jobs cuts were in store.

Whole Foods is a playground for Amazon

And honestly, there is plenty of ground to believe that. Amazon is probably not thinking of Whole Foods as their endgame, but rather as their playground in the grocery space. And you can think of playground as a demeaning word, but it really isn’t. A playground is what Amazon needs to be able to succeed in the grocery space.

The flurry of experiments that Amazon conducted in the past few years have failed because of a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. It is hard to prove that a single grocery experiment is viable without economies of scale, but it is hard to scale that experiment without financial viability. That problem surely existed for previous business like books, but they probably were less complicated.

So, Amazon needs scale from the get-go to jumpstart their grocery experiments. That is what Whole Foods offers. It is a grocer that is big without being as big as Walmart. Plus, their culture emphasizes the independence of each location, which makes it easier to run local experiments. Therefore, it seems like Whole Foods was bought to be a guinea pig.

This seems all the more logical that it very much fits Amazon’s structure and history. Amazon is structured around small teams that have a lot of independence. This means that a lot of them are running live experiments that are validated or axed based on their results. This is the corporate equivalent of throwing stuff against the wall and see if it sticks. More crucially, a lot of these teams operate as APIs: they are supposed to treat both the rest of Amazon and the external world as customers. This explains, for instance, that the Amazon supply chain is available to both Amazon.com and third-party retailers; or that their web services hosts both Amazon’s websites and other customers.

If one takes that framework to think about the Whole Foods acquisition, it is simple to see how this will unfold. Amazon will run experiments in countless Whole Foods stores (and potentially opposite experiments in two different stores to compare them,) and see what works and what doesn’t. In addition, they will probably will reconfigure the back-end of Whole Foods to make more efficient, and, crucially, more flexible so that it can be modularized. (This has led some writers such as Ben Thompson to think that Amazon could use that supply chain to deliver produce to other groceries or even third-party restaurants.)

Despite this acquisition, they are still hard questions that Amazon will have to answer. Even if Amazon is comfortable with being a modular company, it is dubious that they would only keep Whole Foods as their only customer-facing operation, especially outside of the US where Whole Foods is unknown. It seems probable that they would create Amazon branded stores; what they would look like is probably a mystery to the company itself. (But the experience acquired from running Whole Foods, I think, would give them clues to how to conceive them.) And the question of culture compatibility, which has sunk so many mergers before, is still crucial to Amazon’s success.

These issues will still be here next year; hell, they may very well be there in five years. But, at least, Amazon won’t have to worry anymore about the first step of their grocery business, as they will have a jump base to start from.

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Giving beyond the big-name nonprofits

Vox.com published an article this Monday on the “income inequality” of nonprofits — rich charities keep getting richer because they have the resources to market/fundraise and because everyone knows their familiar name.  Each marginal dollar donated to these large organizations potentially is less effective than the same dollar donated to a lesser-known, smaller nonprofit.  The article urges U.S. donors to try to find these lesser-known nonprofits where their dollar could possibly be more effective and asks donors do their research before giving.

This can be a daunting process (how do you even begin?), so my companion piece here leads potential donors to the most suitable resource for their mindset.

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What can happen to your electronics at the US border?

The politics and policies tied to U.S. borders have perhaps never been so fraught and new data released last week by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed that turmoil has reached the electronic devices we all increasingly carry in our pockets and suitcases. Searches of electronic devices by Customs officials at borders and airports have nearly doubled in the past six months, according to the latest information released by the agency. In a press release the agency stressed that the 14,993 searches–up from 8,383 in the same period tin 2016 and 8,503 in 2015still only represented 0.008 percent of the approximately 189.6 million travelers arriving to the United States. Nonetheless, the report confirmed the fears of civil liberty and privacy groups who say they have seen a steady uptick in the number of searches being reported.

FY2016 FY2017
OCTOBER 31,239,053 32,248,121
NOVEMBER 30,350,596 30,430,424
DECEMBER 32,717,813 33,009,690
JANUARY 31,215,009 31,593,522
FEBRUARY 28,209,735* 28,209,602
MARCH 32,643,912 34,103,063**
TOTAL 186,376,118 189,594,422
FY2016 FY2017
OCTOBER 857 2,560
NOVEMBER 1,208 2,379
DECEMBER 1,486 2,404
JANUARY 1,653 2,756
FEBRUARY 1,470 2,299
MARCH 1,709 2,595
TOTAL 8,383 14,993
*February 2016 was a leap year.
**March international arrivals are approximate.walk through new study and make some graph of the data

Source and images CBP

Also this week, the prominent documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras finally received the results of a Freedom of Information Act request she had made in 2015 regarding the approximately 40 border searches and interrogations she underwent between 2006 and 2012. This was before she became internationally famous for her role in the Edward Snowden leaks and revelations, which she chronicled for her Academy Award-winning documentary CITIZENFOUR. “When it first started happening, I was naive and thought as soon as they realize I am a journalist and filmmaker I’ll stop being detained at the border,” Poitras told me in a 2014 interview. “And then it didn’t end.”

According to the information she received this week, Poitras had been singled out for extra attention and caution because of allegations regarding her involvement with an ambush of U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004. (Some soldiers alleged they had seen her on a roof filming the ambush and suggested she had prior notice of the attack. Poitras has vehemently denied the allegations and the army said in 2006 that it did not have sufficient evidence to bring any charges). While Poitras’s example is a unique one, it does shed light on the increasing likelihood that one’s electronic devices may be searched while in transit and the very limited recourse one has to fight back.

So what gives?

Why are Customs officials allowed to search your belongings without a warrant? Doesn’t that violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures”? 

Depends who you ask. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the rights of border officials to conduct warrantless searches of people and their belongings as part of upholding immigration and customs law (thinks searches of luggage for contraband). Civil liberty groups and privacy experts argue these rulings are anachronistic and that the breadth of information available on electronic devices in the 21st century vastly exceeds whatever kind of material was previously available. The CBP last updated its procedures in 2009 in which they give agents wide leeway to conduct searches.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed but the results so far have not provided an overwhelming precedent to change the existing procedures. Nonetheless, privacy groups have been heartened by recent decisions such as a 2013 federal court ruling by the Ninth District of the west coast that extensive forensic searches of laptops at borders can’t be totally indiscriminate and require “reasonable suspicion.” A  2014 decision by the Supreme Court to extend greater protection against the search of electronic devices during arrests was also heralded as important progress that could be used as a basis for future border cases.

How long has this been going on?

Electronic searches at borders unsurprisingly became an issue as both electronic devices and terrorism concerns became more prevalent under the George W. Bush administration, but they really revved up in the last years of Obama’s presidency. At that time, journalists in particular sounded the alarm that they feared they were being targeted by officials eager for information about their reporting and sources; information they otherwise were unlikely to get without a subpoena and long legal fight.

Why is it getting worse?

As shown above, most of the laws and guidelines to govern these searches are outdated and without any clear legal precedent to change the border search exemptions from the Fourth Amendment, agents have vast discretion to apply the regulations as they see fit. The political rhetoric around border protection and general confusion and chaos sowed by the executive order travels bans have created a kind of “anything goes” atmosphere that often comes down to the decision making of individual agents. “The shackles are off,” an ACLU lawyer told NBC news. Despite a number of highly publicized electronic search incidents, the tone of last week’s CBP press release doesn’t suggest the practice will be reined in anytime soon. Even worse, some fear that requiring searches of social media accounts now may become routine.

Crucially, non U.S. citizens have very little legal protection from interrogations and searches at the border, something that is likely to get even worse.

Well this is pretty grim. Is there any way forward?  

Legal challenges are ongoing and unlikely to end anytime soon. There are rumblings in Washington to revise or at least review existing procedures. On April 4, a bipartisan, bicameral group lead by Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act to “ensure Americans are not forced to endure indiscriminate and suspicionless searches of their phones, laptops and other digital devices just to cross the border.”

U.S. citizens may not be legally required to unlock their devices (again, it’s murky), but border agents have wide powers to try to compel them to do so (holding passengers until they miss their flight, copying data from devices or seizing them for up to five days). Requiring access to social media accounts has also been contested, though if they are able to open your phone and you are signed in to your social media accounts it’s a moot point.

To that end, most privacy experts recommend taking measures to protect your devices before travelling. The simplest option is leaving them at home and bringing temporary devices, but numerous organizations and media outlets have published guides to encryption and digital security practices to protect them should that not be possible.

The ACLU also has a general guide to knowing your rights at airports here.


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Violence on Social Media

It’s now a familiar trope in Hollywood–a politician is blackmailed by terrorists who claim they will post a video of a decapitation or some other type of violence against a victim on social media, usually YouTube.

Violence captured and shared on social media: this content tends to become quickly viral, and is difficult to contain for social media platforms that host user generated content. Today, Facebook is increasingly feeling the heat, most recently when Steve Stephens, a Cleveland native, posted a video of him randomly shooting and killing an innocent victim, Robert Goodwin, that was viewed over 1.6 million times before the video was pulled by Facebook more than two hours later.  

Last month, it was a gang rape in Chicago that was streamed on Facebook Live. In January, another similar incident in Sweden was streamed on Facebook Live. Torture of a man with disabilities, child abuse, and suicides have all been streamed on Facebook as well as its subsidiary, Instagram.

Facebook’s typical response to these events involve: taking down content as quickly as possible, an emphasis that the company doesn’t condone this type of content, and a promise to do better.

It seems that the bulk of Facebook’s responses have focused on improving its internal operations and technology, in order to reduce the time from when the content is uploaded to when it is reported, to when it is taken down. Facebook has started exploring using artificial intelligence to prevent questionable content from being shared.

Yet, the challenge of dealing with violent content on social media is not new news. YouTube similarly has had disturbing violent incidents or videos posted, where suspects discuss their intentions for mass shootings. The Syrian Civil War has also led to the uploading of mass violence on YouTube. 

Here is a look at some key events that have happened on social media in the past decade:

While there is almost no way to capture a complete picture of all violent events on social media, it’s clear that with the launch of Facebook Live, the violence has become more real-time, and perhaps more varied. In the era before Facebook Live launches, most videos of violence are related to international crises, where different interest groups are using YouTube as a communication channel for propaganda. The videos of police violence against African Americans in 2015 also showcase how video sharing has changed between then and now: most videos are released significantly after an event occurrence, and their dissemination is still controlled by news media, police, etc. Perhaps because of this, most of the criticism launched at YouTube has been around the difficulty of implementing an effective policy that filters out inflammatory content yet protects the freedom of speech.

In contrast, today’s violent content is easily controlled and disseminated by the perpetrators themselves. This shift is seen as largely thought to be driven by the fact that “The attention from online peers, combined with immediate feedback in the form of comments, reactions and shares, can be intoxicating. The fact that the footage is self-incriminating doesn’t matter to some offenders,” the Guardian claims.

Yet, it’s important to consider whether all violence on social media should be banned. The timeline above shows some key video content that have been critical in spreading public awareness about issues such as police brutality, or mass violence in the Syrian Civil War. The societal importance from public access to such violent content cannot be understated.

Where does that leave users? Unless social media companies develop more automated solutions to identify violence that is purely criminal, and does not have any societal benefit, there will likely be more violent events covered on Facebook Live or otherwise. Understandably, defining what has “societal benefit” is a tricky line to define–and one that will involve a strong hand of company-driven curation, which historically companies such as Facebook and Google have been reluctant to pursue.


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What is happening in Arkansas? 


Arkansas is everywhere in the media these days. After more than a decade without having carried out any execution (the last person to be put to death was Eric Randall in 2005, 12 years after he had committed murder), the governor of the state, Asa Hutchinson, scheduled the execution of seven inmates. The executions are supposed to be carried out within a 11 days span, starting Monday, April 17. This tight schedule is due to one of the drugs used in lethal injections in Arkansas: midazolam. Arkansas’s supply of midazolam expires at the end of April. Arkansas has never carried out any execution using this drug, a powerful sedative administered to the prisoner to make sure the inmate does not feel pain during the process and is not conscious. However, midazolam is highly controversial, as inmates who have been given the drug during their execution seem to have clearly felt something, voicing it and agonizing for as long as 34 minutes in the case of Ronald Bert Smith, who was put to death in Alabama last December.

On Monday 17th, at 7pm, it appeared that « Arkansas ha[d] asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the state’s high court and allow two executions to continue as scheduled Monday night», according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Over the past few days in fact, the issue has become harder to follow. Appeals are made on various grounds, some executions are stayed, others are not, courts block and others do not. So, what is happening in Arkansas? 

First of all, who is scheduled to be executed and for how long have these people been on death rows?

Seven convicts are scheduled to be executed between April 17 and April 27. They are seven males, and each was found guilty of murder. Bruce Earl Ward, scheduled to die on Monday 17, was sentenced to death in 1997. On Monday 17 was also scheduled the death of Don William Davis, who has been on death rows since 1991. Stacey Eugene Johnson, is scheduled to die on April 20 and was sentenced to death in 1997. On the same day is scheduled Ledelle Lee, sentenced in 1995. On April 24, Jack Harold Jones and Marcel W Williams are scheduled to be executed and they have been on death rows since 1996 and 1997 respectively. Lastly, Kenneth D Williams is scheduled for April 27, and was sentenced to death in 2000.

The seven convicts, with year of sentencing.

Originally, eight death sentenced were scheduled to be carried out. One of the inmates, Jason McGehee, was granted a stay of his April 27 execution earlier this month.

Wait. How did that work?

McGehee filled an appeal for clemency. In fact he is not the only one to have done so: five of the other convicts did the same. Clemency is the ability of the governor of a state to come back on the decision of a trial. A clemency application is reviewed by a parole board, and in Arkansas the board is composed of seven members, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The parole board formulates a recommendation to the Governor, about whether or not he should grant clemency to the convict, and the governor usually follows the recommendation – even if technically it is a non-binding advice.

Process of an application for clemency

In McGehee’s case, the parole board recommended Asa Hutchinson, to grant the prisoner clemency. Following the recommendation of the board, the federal Judge D. Price Marshall Jr, granted McGehee a stay of execution while waiting for the decision of the Governor, as the timeline is particularly tight in this precise case. Hutchinson should follow the parole board’s recommendation in the upcoming days, and McGehee’s sentence is likely to transform into life in prison without parole.

How come the convicts have been incarcerated for so long?

Each case is different. In fact, it is not unusual for a convict to spend several years, and even decades on death rows. In 2012, the average time between a death sentence and the execution of the sentence was of 190 months. The trend is clearly positive, as this average was only of 74 months in 1984.

Average time on death rows, in months (deathpenaltyinfo.org)

Why do prisoners spend so much time on death rows?

Once the final appeal is reached, the execution is scheduled and carried out rather fast. However, there is a gigantic amount of procedures between the sentencing, and the final appeal because multiple appeals can be made, under different names, following different procedures and filled at various courts.

To get a better understanding of the process, let’s see what happens when an inmate is sentenced to death in California by highlighting the main steps of the procedure.

Death penalty in California… and how long it takes for execution to be carried out (law.stackexchange.com)

The whole judicial development involves four different courts at different levels. One is the state Supreme Court. When the sentence is pronounced, the legal representation (that is to say the lawyer) of the condemned can fill for direct appeal in one of the state’s appeal court (and this already takes from 9 to 18 months). An appeal must be filled only on the grounds of what was recorded during the trial, that is to say either challenging some of the information, or arguing that judges made a « harmful error », getting in the way of a fair trial.

If the appeal is rejected, the state Supreme Court can be asked for review but does not have to consider the case. Only one direct appeal can be made.
Of course, the procedures do not end with direct appeal being rejected. There is an arsenal of legal instruments that the prisoner and his legal representation can use. One of these instruments is called a writ. A writ is supposed to be processed faster than an appeal, and is technically a document issued by a court granting a lower court the right to pursue legal actions in its name. Now in fact, it turns out that it is much more complicated than this in practice, but also clearer than this plain definition that comes straight out of a law dictionary.

In our case, the petitioner, that is to say the prisoner condemned to death, usually fills a writ to ask the right to appear in front of a court for his trial to be reviewed. The most well known writ is the writ of habeas corpus. This writ of habeas corpus challenges the legality of an incarceration, using as a ground the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, and pointing at what went wrong during the trial, or possible missing pieces of the case (the writ does not have to be filed on grounds explicitly present in the record of the trial, contrary to direct appeal). In other words, a writ of habeas corpus can be filled when it is likely that a prisoner has been denied constitutional right to a fair trial. As a reminder, section 1 of the 14th amendment states that: «  No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ».

There is also the possibility to apply for writ of certiorari when the appeal has been denied, which means asking the Supreme Court to consider the case. However, the Supreme Court does not have to do so ( and it turns out that it considers less than 2% of the cases for which such a writ is filled every year).

How does a case get to the Circuit Court step on the California explanatory graph, and what is a Circuit Court? 

When an appeal has failed at the state level Court, one can apply to the next higher level court. So in our California case, this means turning to courts of the 9th circuit, one of the 13 Circuit Courts of the United States. A Circuit Court handles appeals at the federal level, and the courts are divided between geographical zones because the judges are mobile between the several courts of a same circuit. These courts are specifically made for appeal, that is to say that no trial happens at this level, and the Circuit Courts do not pronounce sentences. Usually, a Circuit Court takes a very long time to review a trial and issue a ruling.

The whole process of appeals can stop at this point, but appeals for clemency can be filled, as in McGehee’s case.

Summary of different levels of courts

What makes the cases in Arkansas so specific? 

In Arkansas, the pace of the scheduled executions is unprecedented since the reinstitution of the death penalty in the US in 1977. It has caused international uproar and indignation.

What makes the cases in Arkansas different is that there are many matters being discussed at various court levels at the moment. One of the issues that was argued at the Supreme Court of Arkansas this past few weeks had to do with the legality of the use of midazlolam, and whether or not it qualified as a « cruel and unusual punishment ». The Swiss firm Hoffman La Roche, that invented and produces the drug, was not even aware of the fact that its product was going to be used in capital executions, and decided to stop selling the drug to states altogether, although some states did try to curb the interdiction. However, challenges on the grounds of the legality of the drug fell short after the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that it was legal to use midazolam in executions.

Moreover, dozens of judges have sent a petition to Asa Hutchinson to request a stay of the executions. A Kickstarter was launched to fund the visits of the families to the inmates. Of course, the convicts are filling applications for clemency. The media and independent initiatives such as the Fair Punishment Project, funded by the Harvard Law School, are challenging the very validity of the trials.

Because there was something wrong with the trials?

In fact, it turns out that all the men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas have an IQ falling below 70, which qualifies for mental illness and impairment. Bruce Ward is a paranoid schizophrenic (he does not believe that he is going to die, but that he is leaving soon to go on a « special mission as an evangelist ». He also sees dogs all over his cell.

No independent party has ever assessed Don Davis’s mental health. It is all the same for Ledelle Lee. Stacey Johnson’s lawyer has never taken a closer look at his client’s personal background. All of the convicts suffered from constant neglect during their childhood. Their families beat them and they grew up in crushing poverty. Some of the men were raped multiple times, and Marcel William’s mother pimped him on a regular basis in exchange for food stamps and a place to stay. All of them have suffered from bad and inconstant representation during the course of their trial. The Fair Punishment Project argues:

« Across the eight cases, the quality of lawyering that we detected falls short of any reasonable standard of effectiveness—one lawyer was drunk in court, while another struggled with mental illness. Several of the lawyers missed deadlines, failed to visit their clients, and continued on a case despite the appearance of a conflict of interest. »

The Project suggest that the governor issues a moratorium while further investigation is conducted.

What happens next?

The Supreme Court is likely to review the cases and last minute appeals because of the uproar the affair is causing. So far, no execution has been carried out. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Arkansas stopped the executions of Don Davis and Bruce Ward. However, the attorney general of Arkansas challenged the decision of this court and asked for the US Supreme Court to overrule the decision for Don Davis (remember, no background research of his mental health has been conducted, so he is not considered as mentally impaired contrary to Bruce Ward who is acknowledged as being, according to the Fair Punishment Project, « insane »). The Supreme Court did not overrule the decision: it suspended the execution of Don Davis. We are now waiting to see what will happen to the other inmates, and what the Supreme Court will rule when reviewing the inmates mental health condition. Much more is to come in the following days. Remember that no stay of execution has been issued for the other 5 convicts… yet.

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Power play during a state of emergency

On April 16th, Turkey voted for a referendum that gave additional powers to the President under the new constitutional changes. Under the new changes, Turkey will now have executive powers for the President, like appointing important Judicial positions and removing the post of Prime Minster, by abolishing the current parliamentary system.

In July 2016, President Erdogan established a state of emergency in the country after a failed military coup that tried to remove him as President. Since then the state of emergency has been extended multiple times for 3 months at a time. It was first extended to stabilize the country and also in January after the New Year’s attack. Following image shows the other countries with a state of emergency in 2016

Source: https://qz.com/738249/the-worlds-depressing-state-of-emergency-in-2016-mapped/

The referendum impacts the people of Turkey and following is an attempt to map the power and interests of the impacted parties:

Source: Built Mindmap using MindMeister

President Erdogan’s winning the referendum vote by a slight majority has given him immense power in the upcoming years. This helps provide stability to the country because the President can control any coup attempts in the future by bringing in an authoritarian regime, but this will suppress the freedom of Turkey’s people. But the immense power in the hands of one individual will make it difficult to predict the future state of the country and will create confusion on how to build diplomatic ties with the country.

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French presidential polls seem too consistent to be true

The French presidential election will be held in 10 days from now, and it seems like a nail-biter. The first round, which seeks to determine which two candidates will be qualified for the final runoff1, seems to have become essentially a four-way race. And we are not talking about a four separate, but similar politicians. We are talking about a pro-European centrist candidate (Emmanuel Macron), a neo-conservative who, after being charged for embezzlement of public funds, is now France’s most unpopular politician (François Fillon), a brash but eloquent candidate endorsed by the French Communist Party (Jean-Luc Mélenchon), and, of course, Marine Le Pen. According to the latest polls, all of them are, essentially, within 5 points of each other.

The French media is, understandably, covering the election relatively nervously. Even though every poll for the past few weeks has shown Macron and Le Pen with a somewhat comfortable lead over Fillon and Mélenchon, every one of the 6 potential match-ups is brought up by pundits. (This has a lot to do with a massive 15-year old election upset; I’ll come back to that a little later.) Most bonkers, however, is that this concern is actually probably underplayed. Just by taking a look at the general shape of election polls, it is pretty clear that something weird is going on, and that we may underestimate how truly unpredictable this first round is shaping to be.

The big red flag of these election polls is that they really, really don’t deviate from each other. It is a pretty easy thing to measure. Polls, because they take measurement on a sample, are inherently flawed; fortunately, that flaw is simple to estimate. For this post, I am assuming that the sampling error for one poll, for the first round, is around 2.7 points2. This is the sampling error that one would expect when trying to evaluate percentages around 20 points, and with samples of 1000 people. This what we are talking about here: the four candidates’ numbers are currently in the range of 17 to 25 points; and almost every poll has a 1000-ish sample.

If that standard error due to sampling is 2.7 points, that means that we should find results within that interval something like 68% of the time.3. This is what would happen if all the surveys were done with random sampling, and no tinkering on the back end. What happens if you line up the polls together and compare them?

The black dots here, represent the different polls. The black line is the moving average (computed with a local regression). The blue interval is this average +/- 1.35 points, which represents the sampling error. We should normally expect to see roughly a third of polls outside that interval. It is obviously not the case. Even more striking is the fact that polls get significantly closer 60 days before the election, after February 25th, at the moment where you can see a lot of movements in the numbers. For the past three months, basically, there has been virtually no outlier poll for any of the four major candidates. This should not happen in an ideal polling environment, and is quite concerning.

To get more dramatic, I used a chi-square test, which is used to determine if a dice is weighted. Here is what it yields:

  • The odds that the fact that Macron’s scores were this consistent is a coincidence is 0.001%.
  • The odds that the fact that Fillon’s scores were this consistent is a coincidence is 0.0003%.
  • The odds that the fact that Mélenchon’s scores were this consistent is a coincidence is 0.0006%.
  • The odds that the fact that Le Pen’s scores were this consistent is a coincidence is 0.00000000002%.

There are potential two explanations to this. Firstly, French pollsters almost uniformly use a method called quota sampling. In other words, they seek for a certain balance with regard to their samples to achieve certain ratios that would be, in their mind, representative of the electorate. The consistency of the quotas used by pollsters could be the cause of the consistency of the polls; and, of course, this is a controversial polling method. It was discredited in the US in 1948, after it failed to predict Truman’s re-election. And this is probably a very bad election cycle to promote quota sampling. The 2017 election cycle has been defined by its volatility, as well as an unusually high number of undecided and a big question mark with regard to turnout. (That, in short, never really happened before4.) In this disjunctive election cycle, it seems a little bit crazy to pretend that the quality of polls rely on a deep understanding of the electorate and its dynamics.

The second explanation, much less nice to pollsters, is what Americans would call herding. In other words, manipulating poll data, or hiding some results, to prevent outliers5. I don’t know to which extent this is the case, because it would require a little bit more of analysis, but it definitely does seem likely. That polls seem more and more consistent during periods at the end of the campaign that displayed a lot of poll movements looks very suspicious to me. I just don’t buy that pollsters have a better grasp of the electorate now that they had four months ago, especially provided that the campaign has been essentially upended a few times since then.

I am all the more suspicious of French pollsters that they actually screwed up big time before. In 2002, all of them showed Prime Minister Jospin and President Chirac as confortable front-runners in the first round; they were virtually assured of being qualified to the second round. What happened, in fact, is that National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second, ousting Jospin. (And with an almost 1 point difference!). This was, and still is, a national trauma, as the public did not see it coming. And guess how were pre-election Le Pen’s poll numbers? (The red dot is his actual, eventual score)

It seems like history is repeating itself 15 years later. What does that mean for Election Day? Essentially, fasten your seat bells. The uncertainty around this election is much, much higher than polls might let us think. A lot of second-round possibilities, even between the far-right and the far-left, are to be considered. And, for once, the political TV circus is actually justifiably hysterical.

(1) The French election votes according to the runoff voting system. First round candidates need 50% of the votes to win, or else the two top candidates face off in the second round to get these 50%. And for those who think that this system is a French peculiarity, you might want to think again: it’s actually the voting system used in next Tuesday’s special election in Georgia.

(2) This is also somewhat less than the average error that French polls have historically displayed 30 days before the election. If I were to use that metric, though, it would only strengthen my claims that French polls may be pretty low-quality, and too close to each other.

(3) The standard error is basically half the margin of error. If a pollster say “20%” to you, it really means that it is 95% confident that it will fall between 17.3 and 22.7 points (+/- 2.7 points). And 68% that it will fall between 18.65 and 21.35 (the range is 2.7 points large.)

(4) Turnout for French presidential elections tends to be in the 80%’s, which is obviously much higher than elections in the U.S.. This tends to reduce uncertainty with regard to the effect of turnout on elections.

(5) Much more through explanation of herding is given in this article, which served as a partial inspiration for this post.

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Understanding the International Criminal Court


Like many intergovernmental agencies or entities, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague is, generally speaking, little understood and even less valued in the United States. In the international community, the court is often either hailed as a remarkable development in international justice or starkly criticized as remote and ineffectual. Recent more damning criticisms dismiss the whole enterprise as Neocolonialist. But what actually can the court do and what has it done? This is a story that could be told in many ways involving deep historical and legal analysis. But it has also been a numbers game where location is deeply relevant and so I attempted to tell a very simple version of that story using maps made with Datawrapper. I am indebted to former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and Harvard Kennedy School professor Kathryn Sikkink, whose January term HKS class “Preventing Mass Atrocities: Preventing Mass Atrocities: The Security Council and the International Criminal Court,” provided much of the background information.


In the more than half century since the Nuremberg Trials, there have been a number of one-off experiments with international and local transitional justice (the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Argentina, Guatemala etc.). But proponents of international justice dreamed of establishing a single court that would have jurisdiction to try grave cases of human rights abuses around the world and whose moral and legal authority would hopefully prevent such crimes from occurring in the future. After years of wrangling, the ICC was established by the Rome Statute, which was adopted at an international diplomatic conference in 1998 and came into force in 2002.

There was of course a catch (several in fact) and limits on its authority and powers. The most significant being the court only has jurisdiction over those States that are parties to the statute (or committed crimes in territories that are parties). The exception to this rule is cases that have referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council.

The above map and numbers of countries that have signed looks pretty impressive, until you realize who is missing – namely the United States, Russia, China and most of the countries of the Middle East. That’s more than half the UN Security Council and the countries where many of the worst conflicts of the 21st century are occurring. To some degree, the court merely holds a mirror to existing international power dynamics that govern our world. The ICC’s defenders would say it is unfair to expect the court to surpass these realities. But for an entity whose stated mission includes preventing future atrocities from happening, the fact that no one responsible for the horrific crimes occurring in Syria is likely to step foot in its chambers–unless there is a dramatic geopolitical shift–is a brutal blow.

Beyond jurisdiction, the court’s mandate only allows it to try cases that meet the threshold of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or the less-tested crime of aggression.  A case can only be prosecuted if it has been established that the appropriate State is unwilling or unable to genuinely do so itself.


Preliminary Investigations

Some of the cases that have undergone preliminary investigation test the third-party territorial jurisdiction clause (ie the United Kingdom for crimes committed in Iraq, the registered vessels of Comoros, Greece and Cambodia for the flotilla incident with Israel)

These are cases that are deemed not to meet the statutory requirements of the court.

These are cases that are ruled to meet the requirements for further investigation.  This is where the geographic concentration of cases begins to become apparent.





The collapse of the court’s case in Kenya has been a source of much concern and seen as a bad omen for the court’s future.


This includes noteworthy cases such as the Gadaffs in Libya (the case against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for crimes committed during the Libyan revolution was dropped with his death, there is an arrest warrant out for his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, but he is being held by a militia in Libya),  Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (his arrest warrant, the first against an active head of State, has been routinely flouted by African and Middle Eastern countries to which he he has travelled freely), and Joseph Kony in Uganda (the online video “Kony2012” may have been a viral sensation but has had no visible impact on securing his capture).



These last maps should make apparent the main criticisms lodged against the court – that convictions have been few, that without a tool to enforce arrest warrants it will remain impotent and, most recently, that the pronounced focus on African countries is a sign of its colonialist intentions (and have resulted in the threat of the withdrawal of several African nations from the Rome Statute).

Proponents of the ICC mostly acknowledge that the court has its flaws that could be improved, but defend the cost and pace of the convictions by explaining the complexity, scope and ambition of what it trying to be achieved. They look to recent developments in Latin America as a sign that the court’s preventative potential may be working. The enforcement dilemma, they say,  is ultimately one of political will that must be worked out through advocacy and diplomatic channels. And the charges of neocolonialism have been vehemently denied by the current Gambian and former Argentine prosecutors of the court, who argue that those criticisms betray a lack of understanding of the court’s statutory limitations and are an excuse for brutal dictators to evade justice.

Ultimately, the ICC may be the best tool we have in an imperfect world. After all without it, former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has asked, “who else will fight for the victims?”

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Anti-Semitic Incidents in MA: A Tale of Two Data Sources

By AAAD (Arthur, Anne, Anne, Drew)

“Data-driven” is the theme of the modern age. From business decision-making to policy changes, from news stories to social impact evaluations, data is a foundational building block for many organizations and their causes. However, while we would like to think that all data represent absolute truths, the real world presents many challenges to accurate reporting.

Our team was motivated by the question: How has the prevalence of anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts changed over the past several years?  In our exploration of this question, we learned an old but important truth when you see data, dive deep and make sure you understand how the data collection methods could affect the resulting data.

To begin our exploration of anti-Semitic incidents in MA, we looked into two sources: the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). To begin with, we noticed obvious discrepancies in the annual totals of anti-Semitic incidents reported by the two sources:

Anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts

2015 50 40
2014 47 36
2013 46 83
2012 38 90
2011 72 92
2010 64 48

Source: ADL press releases and EOPSS data from a FOI request

After seeing these discrepancies, we decided to dig deeper and try to understand what might account for the differences.  We began by investigating how the data is collected and then comparing differing statistics between the two sources.

EOPSS’ approach and its implications

Massachusetts passed its first hate crime legislation in 1991, but not every agency has adhered to it. According to reports from the Massachusett’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), the state did not begin tracking non-reporting agencies until 2005.

The Massachusetts “Hate Crimes Reporting Act requires that the number of hate crimes that occur in the Commonwealth be submitted to the Secretary of Public Safety annually, even if that number is zero. (M.G.L. c. 22C, § 32).” Nonetheless, as late as 2014, some districts were not reporting this statistic. The FBI also compiles hate crime data, though submitting this information is voluntary. Some Massachusetts agencies that have failed to report hate crime data to the FBI have stated they did not realize the FBI had even requested the information.

The accuracy of hate crime reporting data can be influenced by a number of factors, including record keeping procedures within a given agencies and whether or not officers are trained to inquire about factors that qualify crimes as hate crimes.

When agencies do not report data to the state, any hate crimes recorded in the populations in those districts are not represented by the official state statistics. Agencies that have zero hate crimes should report zero hate crimes to the state (These are designated as “zero-reporting” agencies in official reports). A further complication in determining trends can occur when formerly non-reporting agencies begin to report incidents of hate crime if the number is not zero.

Data collected by Massachusetts indicates the population covered by agencies that did not report hate crime statistics grew from roughly 66,000 in 2011 to over 300,000 in 2014.

Massachusetts has recently taken steps to increase the public’s ability to report hate crimes, setting up a hotline in November of 2016. Some police districts also have a designated Civil Rights Officer to handle hate crimes.  

The issues raised by non-reporting are far from academic. When national tragedies occur, one reaction may be in an increase in hate crimes against particular populations. In these cases, hate crime statistics can provide insight about the implications for local communities.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Bristol County Sheriff, Thomas Hodgson, called for the issue of arrest warrants for elected officials of “sanctuary cities.” This prompted Somerville mayor, Joe Curtatone, to defend the legality of sanctuary cities and refer to Sheriff Hodgson as a “jack-booted thug.” He further taunted Hodgson to, “come and get me.” These flare ups between public officials indicate the tension that has formed in the public sphere around the issue of immigration.

Hate crime reporting statistics can provide a tool to measure claims of anti-immigrant-related incidents and provide the public with a sense of whether these incidents are on the rise. Massachusetts has responded to concerns about an increase in hate crimes by setting up a hate crime reporting hotline.

Official statistics from police departments and college campuses can bring clarity to the issue, but Massachusetts must both require and enforce reporting mandates as well as provide training to local agencies to improve and standardize the reporting of these statistics.

ADL’s selected approach and its implications

Another source of data on Massachusetts anti-Semitic crimes comes from the Jewish NGO, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL was founded in the United States in 1913 and aims to “stop anti-Semitism and defend the Jewish people,” according to their website.

Since 1979, the ADL has conducted an annual “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents.” The ADL’s data partially overlaps with official data — they use data from law enforcement — but they also collect outside information from victims and community leaders.

The limitations in the ADL’s audits are like those of any audits trying to cover anti-Semitic crimes. The way the ADL handles them, however, should carefully be noted as it greatly affects the resulting numbers.

First of all, unlike the official data, the ADL also includes non-criminal acts of “harassment and intimidation” in its numbers, which encompasses hate propaganda, threats, and slurs.

Another key difference from the official data is that ADL staff attempt to verify all anti-Semitic acts included in the audit. While crimes against institutions are easier to confirm, harassment against individuals that are reported anonymously provide unique challenges for verifying.

Additionally, some crimes are not easily identifiable as anti-Semitic even though they may be. In their annual audit, the ADL considers all types of vandalism at Jewish institutions to be anti-Semitic, even without explicit evidence of anti-Semitic intent. This includes stones thrown at synagogue windows, for example.

On the other hand, the ADL does not consider all swastikas to be anti-Semitic. As of 2009, they have stopped counting swastikas that don’t target Jews, as it has become a universal symbol of hate in certain cases.

The ADL also does not count related incidents separately. Instead, crimes or harassment that occurred in multiple nearby places at similar times are counted as one event.

All of these choices made by the ADL greatly affect the numbers that they produce each year.

Comparing and contrasting the results of the two methodologies

Numbers can tell different stories depending on the choices and circumstances surrounding the ADL and the EOPSS’ hate crime data collection processes.  To demonstrate this, we compare some of the conclusions between the two datasets for anti-Semitic hate crimes in Massachusetts.

Starting small: One location claim

One of the ADL’s figures for 2013 indicated that 28% (or 13) of the 46 total anti-Semitic incidents that year took place on a school or college campus.  If we look for the same percentage in the EOPSS data, we find a similar 29% of reported 2013 incidents occurring on a school or college campus.  

This single summary seems to bode well for comparisons between the two datasets: however, things get a little hazier when you look at the absolute numbers.  Instead of 13 out of 46 total incidents, the EOPSS data reported 24 out of 83 incidents on a school or college campus, and it’s unclear what accounts for the difference in scale.

Time trends in reports

If we look at time trends, 25% of the anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts reported by the ADL in 2014 occurred in July and August, while that figure was 8% for the same time period in 2013.  

That “marked increase” in anti-Semitic incidents was attributed to the 50-day Israel-Gaza conflict that took place from July 8 to August 26, 2014 by ADL’s New England Regional Director saying, “This year’s audit provides an alarming snapshot into anti-Semitic acts connected to Operation Protective Edge over the summer as well as acts directed at Jewish institutions.  The conflict last summer demonstrates how anti-Israel sentiment rapidly translates into attacks on Jewish institutions.”

If we look at EOPSS data for 2013 and 2014, however, there appears to be no sign of a marked increase in anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the summer months — in fact, in absolute numbers, both incidents in July/August and incidents in the entire year decreased from 2013 to 2014 in the EOPSS data.  

Because the ADL does not provide their underlying data to the public, we can’t dig into the stories of the specific incidents in July/August 2014 and see if they could indeed be a result of the Israel-Gaza conflict.  Additionally, with not-particularly-scientific or consistent reporting methodologies, it’s hard to make concrete conclusions from either of these datasets.

Incident types: Differences might be explained by differing reporting policies

Thus far, we’ve identified contradictions between the two datasets, but have not been able to discern how the two data collection methods may have specifically contributed to those contradictions.  

One topic where we can attempt to do so is the matter of vandalism:

According to the annual ADL audit, 16 of the 46 anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts in 2013 (35%) involved vandalism.  The same figure from the ADL for 2014 was 23 vandalism incidents out of 47 total anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts (49%).  In EOPSS’ numbers, however, vandalism looks like an even larger portion of anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts.

As discussed previously, the ADL reports all vandalism of Jewish institutions as anti-Semitic incidents, but does not count all vandalism including swastikas as anti-Semitic incidents in their data.  Although not directly specified, the EOPSS datasets likely do categorize all reports of swastikas as anti-Semitic vandalism, which would be a possible explanation for the large discrepancy in percentages (on top of the simple explanation that with numbers of this magnitude and lack of precision, variations are inevitable).

Do Data Due-Diligence!

Investigating the discrepancies and the data collection methodologies was not merely an academic exercise: it demonstrates that this is a necessary step to understanding what kinds of conclusions you can reasonably draw from your data and what kinds of caveats you should include when reporting or making decisions based on that data.  

Using only one dataset without exploring how the data was collected and digging into the details of the data could yield very different headlines:

Blindly using ADL data might yield: “Anti-Semitic hate crimes in Massachusetts increase 2% from 2013 to 2014.” (This was just 46 to 47 — is it really reflective of the situation to call that a 2% increase? Does this reflect the reality?)

Blindly using EOPSS data might yield: “Massachusetts became safer for Jewish people in 2014: anti-Semitic hate crimes dropped 43% from 2013.”  (Is this message true, or is this “trend” due to data collection issues? Why does it paint such a different picture from the ADL data?)

Do your data due-diligence.

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